Samarendra Das & Felix Padel, Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel (Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan, 2020), xxxii + 776 pp.
Can Anthropology of Aluminium Companies Speak for the Adivasis? Epistemological Ruptures in East India Frontier
There have been a lot of follow up writings that have encapsulated and demystified the enormity and complexities of ideas, events, histories, experiences, and narratives that Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel encompasses. This review essay is an attempt to re-engage and revisit some of the key aspects and attributes of the new 2020 edition by Samarendra Das and Felix Padel.
Samarendra Das is an independent researcher, Odia writer, film-maker and activist. He is also closely associated with the Samajvadi Jan Parishad (Socialist People’s Council) -- a political outfit working with grassroots-level movements in India. Das is also a founder member of Foil Vedanta (www.foilvedanta.org), an independent grassroots solidarity organisation focused primarily on the British-Indian mining company Vedanta Resources PLC. Felix Padel is an anthropologist trained in Oxford and Delhi universities. His earlier work Sacrifice of Human Being (1995) looked at the colonial invasion of Kond territory from 1835. It is worth mentioning that the new 2020 edition has some new elements to it. The new edition contains 20 chapters with 808 pages while the 2010 edition was 21 chapters with 774 pages. In this edition, the authors swapped their authorship and this time the activist Das takes the first authorship. The new edition has 14 tables, 24 images, 6 maps, and 8 appendices that makes the book a treasure including the statistics and the list of mines. The 2010 edition came out after the Shah commission was set up to investigate the illegal iron ore and manganese mining situate in India. The book was brought to the Supreme Court’s attention during the landmark case on Niyamgiri. The reason Niyamgiri is best forested area of Odisha’s Bauxite Malis is the only mountain with its own special tribe, the Dongria Kond, who live only in the Niyamgiri range, and have preserved the forest on the mountain summits as sacred to Niyam Raja, the Lord of the Law (p. 64, 2010; p.73, 2020). After 10 years, the world is different, and mankind is witnessing severe and catastrophic environmental challenges in the form of global warming, hurricanes, epidemic, pandemic, flood, landslide, avalanches and more. Amongst the other threats, climate change in particular is the most pressing and urgent issue that the world is facing. The new edition is an updated version with more compelling details and records. It so adeptly presents the intricate linkages of mining-deforestation-climate change and that is one of the new additions which makes this new edition different from the 2010 edition.
Out of this Earth (OoTE) offers a detailed and overarching view of the aluminium industry worldwide, and also about its production, consumption, and distribution. The authors also focus on aspects like corporate financing, corporate and state nexus, sufferings and exploitations of local and indigenous communities in close proximity with aluminium factories and refineries. The book provides a close view about the trajectories of aluminium and how it became one of the most used metals in the history of mankind. Primarily, the study in this book is located in Khondalite Mountains in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, which is famous for rich deposits of minerals. The book raises some of the key fundamental questions about the political economy of industrialisation in general and the aluminium industry in particular. It also traces the growth and evolution of extractive industries and how these industries have continued to adversely affect innocent communities that are mostly neglected and side-lined by the state and its development paradigm. The authors add more essence to the fundamental questions that the Adivasis are grappling with and they held the Government answerable for that. The authors quote Bhagaban Majhi, a leader of Adivasi resistance to the Utkal Alumina project in Kashipur, Odisha:
“We have sought an explanation from the government about people who have already been displaced in the name of development. How many have been properly rehabilitated: you have not provided them with jobs; you have not rehabilitated them at all. How can you again displace more people? Where will you relocate them and what jobs will you give them? You tell us first. The Government has failed to answer our questions. Our fundamental question is: how can we survive if our lands are taken away from us? We are tribal farmers. We are earthworms [Matiro Poko], like fishes that dies when taken out of water, a cultivator dies when his land is taken away from him. So we won’t leave our land. We want permanent development.” (Recorded in the film Matiro Poko (Earth Worm, Company Man) by Amerandra and Samarendra Das (2005)
The book is not limited in its locational positioning to Odisha, India; it also recounts the histories and contemporary scenes of aluminium industry in other countries like Brazil, Australia, Guyana, Jamaica, Guinea, Ghana, and Iceland. The book is quite successful in providing a macro understanding of the aluminium industry and the inhumane and disastrous affect it has on marginalised and locationally disadvantaged communities.
Importantly, it is essential to indicate that being an Odia myself who hails from Odisha and considering my own background and growing up in a tribal dominated district like Keonjhar, I find this book quite compelling and absorbing for the people of Odisha. It is fascinating to see a work like this that takes the responsibility of being sincere and authentic to the Adivasis, their identities, values, and cultures.
Moreover, in terms of the theoretical and methodological groundings OoTE is an enriching volume. It goes beyond the traditional and conventional ways and means of doing research in tribal communities by practicing new ways and means that question the conventional anthropological and other sociological styles and patterns of engaging with local and indigenous communities and their lives and cultures.
The book offers a bottom-up view of community life, culture and how industrialisation and the business interest of corporates have been affecting the social, cultural, geographical, economic and environmental ecosystems of local and indigenous communities.
Primarily, drawing on empirical evidence from sites located in tribal spaces in Odisha, the book engages with various politically and economically disadvantaged indigenous communities in Odisha to understand how bauxite mining and aluminium production and refining have tremendously affected the social and cultural changes; and more importantly, how industrialisation in the name of so-called development of marginalised and underprivileged communities has been politically motivated; and local people’s best well-being has been economically side-lined and affected by the state and corporate nexus in a very strategic way.
Methodologically and theoretically, the book foregrounds itself in a robust space and it tries to promote indigenous ways and means of engaging with the tribal communities by employing methods of co-learning, co-listening, and co-narrating. While the book refers and cites global scholarship and literature, it is nevertheless very categorical about not falling in the trap of western methods and methodologies to carry out the study. The book also critiques the western and popular anthropological and other social sciences methods and methodologies and talks about the need for a method like Reverse Anthropology by substantiating it with holistic yet critical analysis that comes out of a true bottom-up approach. On popular development paradigms, the book offers staunch criticism of a development model that is embedded in the corporate-state nexus with invasive and destructive intentions, that hamper the indigenous communities and their lives.
Furthermore, the book does an in-depth analysis of aluminium companies and how they affect human life by capturing some of India’s strongest and most successful people’s movements, like in Kashipur (for some years) and Niyamgiri, which succeeded in halting mining projects and keep community interests alive. Das and Padel also discuss that,
“the extraction of mineral wealth from the tribal land from the consumerism and resource wars of the global elite provides a sharp insight into various forms of power; from overt economic and political power of the industrial-military complex, to the role of aid agencies, NGOs, and academics in obfuscating information to suit their own agendas, an finally, the ability of grassroots people’s movements to mobilise effective action against these huge odds.” (p.xxiii)
The book promises to offer valuable insights about the global history of aluminium and it traces the evolution of aluminium as a metal and its importance in human life. In that process, the book successfully engages the complexities embedded in the state and corporate nexus, vested interests, and affected community’s response to the growth of aluminium industry. To start off with, the authors raise certain fundamental questions like,
“How well do we know our earth? How well do we understand how it feeds us, or what we are doing to it through mining? What is the real cost of mining, to our earth and to ourselves? Who really benefits from the extraction and processing of huge quantities of minerals and oil from its depths?” (p.xix)
The uniqueness of OoTE lies in its representation and narration of India’s Adivasis. Individuals’ voices are very prominent and the authors have skilfully positioned these voices as sharply intelligent and historically situated. As a result, these narrations and positioning of marginalised voices make for a holistic history of India’s people’s movement.
Bringing in their own involvement with the people’s movements in different parts of Odisha and elsewhere against mining projects, the authors detail the hidden motives and agendas behind expanding and establishing aluminium factories and refineries in rich tribal lands. The book also uncovers the deep socio-economic inequalities entrenched in the state and corporate nexus that aim to mainstream and uproot the tribal communities from their own land. The book establishes how indigenous communities and their social, cultural, and economic ecosystems and infrastructures are close to nature and they have a tradition of co-existing with nature without disturbing and dismantling the ecological balance. Also, the book uses the excerpts of the documentary film Matiro Poko, Company Loka (Das &Das, 2005) made by Amarendra Das & Samarendra Das as evidence. The documentary film captures the trajectories of the resistance movements in the tribal spaces of Odisha. It is a documentary film made with and for the indigenous people of Odisha. It brings the speeches, songs, dances, gestures alive on the screen with the purpose of serving the indigenous people.
Interestingly, the book also analyses the political economy of the aluminium industry and how international monetary agencies including the World Bank and Britain’s Department for International Development have influenced both local NGOs and state-level economic policies to support the aluminium industry.
Primarily, the authors have tried to bring to light the concealed history of aluminium from different parts of the world and the implications it has had on indigenous communities across the globe by historicising and unpacking the overall patterns of aluminium industries in India and elsewhere (p.xxvi).
The book quite efficiently documents the resistance movements of Kashipur and Niyamgiri to showcase how marginalised voices and their collaborative strength led to the success of people’s movements against the mining projects and their hidden motives that goes against the Adivasis culture and livelihood. It also introduces the idea of ecological racism and how it is playing out in protest sites. The authors ably narrate those stories to unmask the subjugation of the innocent Adivasis. The authors quote an intense conversation between Bhim Majhi, a founding member of the Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti along with his other fellow village members with the District Collector, showing a clear grasp of climate change and he responded. Their conversation reads:
They asked, ‘why are you opposing Sterlite Company?’ Majhi replied ‘We are resisting for our motherland, for our mountain. So we oppose Sterlite. We oppose the government. The summer is hot already, it will get worse if Sterlite comes. You won’t get rain then. The summer is so hard already, so we want them to stop.’ Then they say, ‘You are opposing us, can you compete?’ We reply, ‘It is not about winning or losing. We will resist, for our mountain.’ Then they ridicule us and say, ‘What are you Konds up to?’ What do you know about these things?’ (p.167)
This book is an ambitious project that aim to provide a panoramic view for readers to analyse and understand the connections between the aluminium industry, cartels, governments, banks, debt bondage, politics and their impact on the Adivasis (indigenous tribes) of Odisha. The book also exposes an unholy alliance of police, mining companies, politicians and Journalists, which whitewashes and silences public debates to favour the aluminium actors. Also the book changed the site of intervention and gazed at the focus of power and materiality using the political economy framework and anthropology. It also avoids fetishsizing decolonisation to not become redundant like many other works that have only added to the redundancy in the name of so-called rigorous academic scholarship.
In their ambitious and motivated attempt to unpack the hidden histories of bauxite mining and the aluminium industry globally, Das and Padel offer a critical understanding of the complex world of aluminium production, starting from identifying a bauxite mining site to factories, consumption, and distribution. The study also takes into consideration all those possible embedded systems, networks, and nexuses to make sense of the events that actually happen beyond the eyes of the communities that get affected in the process. The book describes the unprecedented plundering of resources in some of the best kept natural resources in states like Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh. While doing so, the authors also provide a detailed and extensive account of the atrocities, disparities, inequalities and extraordinary challenges that local and indigenous communities face due to bauxite mining and installation of aluminium factories and refineries. What the book also looks at the state and its administration’s role in facilitating and building a favourable environment for rapid industrialisation at the cost of natural resources and indigenous communities and their livelihoods. While trying to engage and comprehend the global complexities involved in bauxite mining and aluminium production by transnational corporates, the book presents fascinating details of how big names in the extractive industries, multilateral aid agencies, and policymakers who live in cities like New York, Washington or London for that matter, decide the fate of indigenous communities without even analysing and forecasting how extractive industries adversely affect indigenous lives in a disastrous and dreadful way.
The book is structured in five parts, each of which deals with different aspects of bauxite mining, aluminium production, local resistance, global complexities, the state-corporate nexus and so on. Part I of the book, entitled “White Metal: Green Mask”, provides a detailed and extensive account of the global history of aluminium and how it has become the most consumed metal of late due to the change in global economic order and human lifestyles. This section also offers a descriptive idea about the Konds and Khondalite of Odisha and how local resistance movements in places like Kashipur and Lanjigarh of Odisha brewed up to resist bauxite mining and aluminium production and refining. Going ahead, Part II, entitled “Niyam Raja meets the World-Wide Web: Aluminium’s Social Structure”, demystifies the global complexities involved in understanding the overall social structure of aluminium. This part also maps the entire trajectory of aluminium by looking at the global histories and mining laws in India and elsewhere. While focusing on aluminium in India, the authors particularly emphasise events and developments that occurred in Odisha and how certain acts, laws, and enforcements were made to ensure the entry of global aluminium actors into the indigenous lands of Odisha is a hassle-free affair. Analysing and critiquing the aluminium model for development, empowerment, and prosperity in Part III, the authors present quite a rigorous description of how aluminium is waging a war-like situation in the contemporary age, or what the authors so interestingly and evocatively put it as ‘Aluminium Age’ (p.7). Apart from that, this section also offers a concrete understanding about the ‘Investment-Induced Displacement’ of indigenous communities, their livelihoods and culture. In this section, the authors strongly point out that the biggest impact that extractive industries have on the communities is what can be termed as ‘cultural genocide.’ Moreover, the political-economy of bauxite mining and aluminium industries is also covered in this section. In Part IV, the authors’ argument shows the corporatisation, NGO-isation, and culture of appropriation by large corporate interests quite articulately. This section talks in detail about the role of big money players and aid agencies in facilitating the big aluminium corporates to get their aims achieved at the cost of culture and livelihood of local and indigenous communities. Also, this section looks at how the local level NGOs are deployed with a hidden agenda that is sponsored by the corporates to appropriate and brainwash the indigenous communities to get their things done in the name of development, upliftment, and empowerment. In the last part of the book, the authors are consolidating all the key arguments and summing up in an absorbing way by giving empirical accounts of the movements that eventually tasted success in their fight against big aluminium corporate giants. Primarily, in this section key questions of movements are asked and addressed to understand resistance movements in a more nuanced way. Key questions like:
“To what extant are the movements against mining projects separate global and local, and to
what extent do they form a single movement? To what extent are they ‘indigenous’? What
different stream can be identified as inspiring them? (p.621)”
The authors also quite efficiently position these mining resistance movements in the larger scholarship that is available in their field. This section also juxtaposes that these people’s movements against mining projects have a strong and complex lineage which sought inspiration from social thinkers and intellectuals like Marx, Lenin, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Rammanohar Lohia, Kishen Pattnayak, and many others. These movements thrive on the values of cooperation, cohabitation, and coexistence with nature. And lastly, the authors round off the book with the stimulating sense of sacredness and how indigenous communities have a greater bonding with the idea of being sacred. For them, nature is everything and everything that is important and necessary for them to be able to survive is actually blessings of nature. Nature is the ultimate thing that they look at and for. Their lives and livelihoods revolve around the idea of nature and it is sacred to them. Alluding to this assertion, one the Padayatra (Foot March) conducted from 17-22 May 2013, passing through every village on the mountains to share information and strategies, Dongria leader Lodo Sikaka spoke to the crowds consisting of five thousand Dongria and Kutia Konds and he affirmed that:
“They are saying they would mind 10 km away from the peak. We will not allow mining even 100 km away from it! For the forestland, for fruits, trees, air and water—for everything Adivasis worship the soil. It is our given right. They are saying Adivasis have right to up to two feet of soil, not up to 10-20 feet. Government is saying Adivasis worship for the forest and not for the soil. What do we worship for? Forest or soil? We of course worship for the soil. Our gods and goddesses are everywhere: here, there, in the trees—everywhere!” (p.190)
So the very nature of extractive industries to extract minerals and natural resources underneath the soil goes against the values of the indigenous communities and they feel agitated when their faiths and values are neglected and side-lined for corporate interests. In the last section, the authors quite extensively focus on these ideas and aspects of indigenous communities and their resistance movements against the mining projects to save their mother nature.
The book explores the intricate details about the geological and economic implications of extractive industries in general and aluminium production and trade in particular. It critically analyses the geology of bauxite mining and aluminium production, distribution, and consumption helps in developing a more nuanced understanding about the complicated and embedded agendas and models involved. In this new edition also, the authors are very particular in substantiating their arguments by providing much important statistical details and references to make their arguments and analyses sound and reasonable.
The book also argues about the business interests involved in the commodification of aluminium and how it has espoused deep-rooted inequalities and exploitations in the name of development and empowerment. The authors are strongly critiquing this industry model of development because of its lack of understanding of the indigenous communities and their cultures and livelihoods. It also emphasizes the inability of this model to make sustainable efforts to ensure that indigenous communities can continue their peaceful co-existence with their nature. In one of their previous papers, Padel and Das critically analyse the hostile effects of mining projects and metal factories resulting in gross disparity in tribal communities. They also reject the whole rhetoric of ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainable mining’ as these ideas have not contributed anything to the indigenous communities in reality. The authors echo the observations of P. Sainath who claims that there are huge amounts of money being pumped into the tribal areas in the name of ‘tribal development’, but unfortunately, it doesn’t make much difference to the lives and realities of the tribal people (Sainath, 1996). One of the harsh and extraordinary impacts that is less talked about and researched is related to the rich ethnic cultures of tribal societies and how these are being killed and vanishing in the name of mainstreaming and development (Padel & Das, 2010).
Moreover, the book is critically positioned in a space that encourages and urges for decolonising of our relationship with materiality. The book is a strong advocate of respecting tribal lives and their social structure as it details the atrocities being faced by the vulnerable communities in the name of aimless development. The authors also claim that it is not the development of the poor and marginalised, it is actually a false rhetoric which justifies and fulfils the business interests of the big corporates. This book is speaking to a global audience of readers by giving important general scenario about the exploitation of bauxite in Jamaica, Brazil, Australia, Guyana, Guinea, Ghana and Iceland. At the same time the book zeroes in on the particular details of the happenings and development of resistance movements that occurred in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. The authors record and narrate the convoluted details of the state and corporate sponsored disparities and socio-cultural inequalities quite sharply and in the words of Joan Martinez-Alier, this whole exercise and efforts by the authors is termed as Environmentalism of the Indigenous and the Poor (Martinez-Alier, 2002).
The authors are strong proponents of the idea of Reverse Anthropology (Kirsch, 2006) because of the fact that the authors are not very content and convinced with how the so-called conventional anthropologists and the rigidity in the field of anthropology have failed in providing a holistic understanding of the indigenous. The authors establish that Reverse Anthropology is justifying and summarising the methodology part of this book. The authors argue that many studies have been conducted that aim to offer critical details of how indigenous communities and their social structure and cultural values are devastated by mining project. But according to the authors these studies need to go further deep into the societies in order to understand the prevailing phenomena. They also assert that it is very much essential to understand the idea of Social Construction of Knowledge and Realities (Berger & Luckmann, 1971) in order to decipher critical details of tribal societies.
The book is very critical of how traditional anthropological orientations interpreted tribal societies during anthropology’s own primitive years in the nineteenth century as an academic field of enquiry. The authors argue that unfortunately the early anthropological studies and observations depicted tribal and indigenous societies as ‘primitive’ and the so-called industrial society as ‘civilised’. But with time, anthropologists have woken upon to this realisation that tribal societies may be less-developed in material terms and division of labour, but they may be more developed in many other terms like social structure, culture, language, and in their relationship with nature. The authors also concede that tribal societies reject the ideas of oppression and exploitation and thrive on shared living, equal relationship, and cooperative labour. The authors also assert that predominantly, studies in anthropology, history, and sociology about mining mostly address issues and themes like migration, tradition, and belief systems, division of labour, and social structure and control etc. In some ways, these studies have essentialised mining communities that have affected the tribal societies in an unbelievable way. It is because of this narrow and very canonical orientation that the existing scholarship is suffering from colour and caste blindness. Instead, the authors argue that studies should question the issues and politics of race embedded in the underdevelopment of tribal societies (p.21). In order to overcome this canonical orientation, the authors are recommending Reverse Anthropology to ensure that the subjects of research should actually take the centre stage and they should start questioning the researchers in order to ensure that the entire exercise is a process of co-learning and conscientization (Freire, 1970). Conscientization helps the subjects of our research to become critical of the process and they will be empowered in their own ways to make sense of the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions of the happenings around them in the name of research and development.
In terms of their methodological and theoretical moorings, the authors are very particular about their ways, styles, and templets of articulating the ground realities, observations, and narratives. This work also problematises the embedded ethnographies and how these canonical and top-down studies take knowledge out of the communities by essentialising their indigenous identity. For those kinds of exercises the authors use ‘Extractive Capital’ or ‘Extractivism’ for “extracting knowledge for the communities to engage with Extractivism.” Exposing the gaps in earlier ethnographies, the authors claim that extracting knowledge from the communities and not giving it back is what the hallmark of traditional ethnography. While one the contrary, this book is extracting knowledge out of Aluminium companies and sharing it back with the communities for their greater good. It is also important to mention here that both the authors are non-indigenous and have played a critical role in engaging with the communities to make sense of being indigenous, its meaning and value.
Throughout the book, one would sense how empathetic the writing is towards the realities of indigenous communities and their lives. It is the methodological and theoretical positioning of the authors and their orientations which have helped in making sense of the complex veracities hidden in the extractive industries in general and bauxite mining and aluminium industries in particular. This position also help the authors in understanding the deep social, cultural, and communication inequalities (Dutta, 2011) embedded in the state and corporate nexus that facilitates the big mining corporations in consolidating their existence in indigenous lands of India and elsewhere.
Moreover, the use of interesting and robust methods, metaphors, narratives, and concepts, like Matiro Poko, Company Loka, Kagaz (Paper), Dharna, Andolan, Niyam Raja, Karma, Dharma, narrative analysis, oral histories, participating in protests/resistance movements, drafting protest poems and songs with communities, creating protest/social movement media like wall magazine, attending annual general meetings and court proceedings, travelling to and meeting with national and supranational institutions, considering rich archival data, in-depth interviews with key stake holders, content analysis of various government reports, acts, laws, annual reports, and newspaper articles have made this book enriching in terms of the research.
Lastly, it would be justified to suggest that OoTE is a seminal text. It intrigues with its unique positioning of research and the important lessons it imparts about the adversities that is caused by the frequent occurrence of resource extraction in indigenous lands in all its globalized complexity and local perversity. One of the key lessons of the book is that it exposes the modern-day imperialism in a thought-provoking way.
In general, the book is a true exposition meant for researchers and students in the field of anthropology, sociology, history, and communication and media studies. OoTE would also serve as a necessary reference point for those who are working on ideas and themes like politics of development, anthropology and political economy of extractive industry, tribal identity and culture, indigeneity, mining, social movements, and social inequalities. Other general English speaking readers will certainly find it richly insightful and informative.
Berger, Peter L., and Luckmann. 1971 . The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London:Penguin.
Das, Amrendra and Samarendra Das. (2005) Matira Poko, Company Loko [Earth Worm, Company Man in Kui/Odia with English subtitles].
Dutta, Mohan J (2011) Communicating Social Change: Structure, Culture, and Agency. New York: Routledge.
Freire, Paulo. 2005  Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, USA: Continuum.
Kirsch, Stuart. (2006) Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea. California: Stanford University Press.
Martinez-Alier, Joan. (2002) The Environmentalism of the poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Padel, Felix. 2010 . The Sacrifice of Human Being: British Rule and the Konds of Orissa. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Padel, Felix & Das, Samarendra. (2010) Cultural Genocide and the Rhetoric of Sustainable Mining in East India, Contemporary South Asia, 18:3, 333-341, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2010.503871
Padel, Felix & Das, Samarendra. (2010) Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel, Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan.
Sainath, P. (1996) Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts. Delhi, London: Penguine.